"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, March 28, 2015

More on Homework

How homework affects learning outcomes is not that easy to study. Learning hinges on so many factors and homework comes with its own sets of variables. Thus, it is not surprising to see conflicting results from research studies on homework. It is therefore important to use more sophisticated statistical models to unravel the variables involved in the relationship between homework and learning.

A recent study soon to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology attempts to determine analytically how homework correlates with learning outcomes. The study involves more than 7,000 students in their second year of obligatory secondary education in the principality of Asturias in Spain. The subjects examined in this work are mathematics and science. Data on homework are collected and scores from standardized tests in mathematics and science are used as measures for learning outcomes. Teachers in these schools generally assign homework that is about 70 minutes long per day. The data indicate that the amount of homework is generally uniform among teachers. However, there is an observed variance in the times reported by students. This observed variability therefore comes mainly from the students themselves, specifically their commitment to do homework. With the differences in time spent on homework, a preliminary analysis on how time spent on homework is related to test scores can be made (shown in the following figure):

Above copied from
Adolescents’ Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices.
Fernández-Alonso, Rubén; Suárez-Álvarez, Javier; Muñiz, José
Journal of Educational Psychology, Mar 16 , 2015

In both subjects, the relationship is a curve. This suggests that there is an optimum time spent on homework (around 90-100 minutes per day). In addition, there are diminishing returns. For example, the gain in score per minute of homework is larger near 50 minutes per day than at times near the optimum. Thus, adding 20 minutes of homework to a child who does 50 minutes a day may lead to a much more significant difference than to a child who is already spending 70 minutes a day.

Aside from the amount of time, homework likewise comes in different flavors of frequency. The study shows that learning outcomes correlate positively with how often homework is assigned. Therefore, although more homework does not always correlate with better results especially when it takes too much time, more frequent homework always goes with better scores. Frequent but not long therefore seems to be key.

Applying more rigorous analysis of the data by introducing other factors such as amount of effort and autonomy, socio-economic status, gender, and prior knowledge reveals a lot more about how homework may in fact be affecting learning. By taking into consideration how a student does the homework (measuring a student's effort and self-reliance) erases the correlation between learning outcomes and homework time. Hence, what counts is not the time but how much effort and independence a child exerts in doing the homework. Incorporation of the educational attainment and professions of the students’ parents likewise explains a significant amount of variance in the learning outcomes. However, all of these factors become much less significant when prior grades of students in mathematics and science are included in the analysis. Effort no longer accounts but autonomy is still important. Socio-economic factors become half as important as well.

Students who have had good grades in math and science previously no longer have their learning outcomes depend as much as other students do on time spent on homework, effort, and socio-economic status.  The fact that autonomy remains consequential probably provides a clue on what role homework really serves in a students' learning. The authors of the study write:
Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-directed learning. 
Homework is not a mere extension of the classroom. It is not an augmentation of teaching or learning time. Instead, homework is an opportunity to develop responsibility and self-efficacy. With this in mind, it becomes clear what the real value of homework is in education. It likewise becomes evident what a good homework should be.

The above study likewise reinforces the message from a previous post in this blog which discusses homework in the early years of education. A child's reading achievement is facilitated by parental involvement in homework through an improvement in the child's academic functioning (more effort and less procrastination).

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Commencement and Not Graduation

In the Philippines, commencement ceremonies are currently being held. These ceremonies are indeed occasions of joy and pride for everyone. Parents, teachers and students are together as one, acknowledging years of labor and hoping for better years to come. Commencement indeed celebrates a beginning. As students embark on a new episode in life, everyone therefore looks forward to hearing a message that hopefully is worth remembering.

The stage is set for commencement exercises in an elementary school in the Philippines (copied from Ibaba Elementary School's facebook page)

Here are excerpts from a memorable speech delivered by an English teacher, David McCullough, at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts in 2012:
"...commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. 
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. 
You are not special. You are not exceptional...
In school, there are stages. One year leads to another. Every end is a beginning. Learning is never ending. Graduations like any end of the year event provide not just an opportunity to look forward, but also to glance back. That someone we look back at the end of a school year is our own self in the past. It happens at the end of the school year that teachers give students evaluations of their schoolwork. In most countries, these come in the form of "grades" or "marks". These are results of assessments. There is nothing inherently wrong in assessments. In fact, assessments should inform teachers, students and parents and help in enhancing teaching, learning and even parenting. Assessments can indeed be both informative and formative.

Unfortunately, grades have also become summative and competitive. In this regard, grades can actually influence a student's behavior or attitude toward learning. With grades possibly affecting a student's engagement in learning, it is important to be aware of how grades psychologically affects students. In "Do Grades Shape Students’ School Engagement? ThePsychological Consequences of Report Card Grades atthe Beginning of Secondary School", published in the Journal of Educational Psychology,  Poorthuis and coworkers conclude:
In many schools, giving grades is a daily routine, yet teachers may not always be fully aware of the possible emotional and behavioral consequences of the grades they provide. This study suggests that low grades may set in motion a downward spiral, whereby consequent declines in engagement result in even lower grades. Low-performing students who perceive their classmates to receive high grades are particularly vulnerable. Also, boys are vulnerable for declines in engagement because they tend to receive lower grades and are more affectively reactive to grades than girls.... 
The study emphasizes the need to communicate to students the correct message behind these evaluations. These grades are temporary and oftentimes reflect not only one's abilities or skills but also effort, opportunity, strategies and luck. Comparing grades between students achieve nothing but impart the destructive lesson of competition. It is sad to note that in one recent high school commencement exercise in the Philippines, an occasion meant only to be joyous and celebratory, resulted in a student airing grievance against teachers for not receiving the highest award.

The misguided emphasis on rankings of individual students only promotes selfishness. It only instills the wrong notion of why someone is special. McCullough therefore correctly points out:
"...Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you...
...If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters....
...Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. 
Because everyone is...."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

DepEd's K+12 Is a Problem, Not a Solution

This blog strongly supports the call for suspension of DepEd's K+12.

The Philippines has been embarking on a gargantuan education reform. 2016 marks the beginning of the senior high school as prescribed by the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013. To appreciate the enormity of this revision, the numbers associated with the two additional years in high school are worth noting. High school basically becomes 50% bigger. Currently, there are about 200,000 teachers in secondary schools. What can therefore extrapolate that the two additional years of DepEd K+12 would require 100,000 additional teachers.

In 2014, the passing rate for aspiring secondary teachers in the Philippines was 28% (only 12,033 passed out of 42,358 takers). The fact that it may take up to ten years to produce the 100,000 teachers needed by the new DepEd K+12 curriculum should make anyone pause. Of course, adding years not only requires teachers but also classrooms and learning materials. Schools have not even fully met the needs of the first ten years of basic education in these areas. The new curriculum not only adds two years but also overhauls the entire basic education such that new learning materials are required for all. The new curriculum introduced mother-tongue based multilingual instruction as well as a spiral approach in the math and the sciences. And last but not the least, kindergarten is now compulsory. DepEd clearly embraces a reform so huge that it might as well use the scope of the reform as an excuse for a destined failure.

Thus, the call for suspension of DepEd's K+12 remains and the Supreme Court of the Philippines recently issued an order to DepEd to respond to this petition:

Related to this movement, a couple of weeks ago, DepEd secretary Luistro has been quoted, "We've already spent on this, and we've been working on this for the last 5 years...We've already seen improvements from our problems from 3, 4, 5 years ago. We're very, very ready for this." The main substance behind the petition before the Supreme Court is the looming crisis in higher education. A "worst-case" scenario estimates that 56,000 instructors in colleges would be affected because of the drop in enrollment in 2016. Returning to the first paragraph of this post, the two additional years require 100,000 teachers so the "56,000" figure is not really a "worst-case" scenario, but a reasonable estimate. Obviously, DepEd secretary Luistro is simply hoping that those who stand to lose jobs in college instruction would assume the teaching positions needed in the added two years of high school. This is ideal as it solves two problems at the same time. Or does it simply transfers problems from one stage of education to another?

Considering teachers is only one part of the situation. Schools are likewise required to meet the needs brought forth by the additional years. To this need, Luistro claims that there are now 5,000 schools ready for senior high school. This number falls short when compared to the number of high schools in the Philippines, 8000. Congressman Tinio is therefore justified in citing that only about 60 percent of students can be accommodated (5000 is about 60% of 8000).

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers also posted in one of its Facebook pages the following,

And it comes with a comment, "Sinong may sabi na libre ang senior high ng K to 12?" (Who said senior high school in K to 12 is free?). The above is a list of private institutions that are about to offer senior high school. It is enlightening to see that the schools' names in the above list bear the words "college" or "university". 

There are plenty of higher education institutions in the country. There are plenty of diploma mills as well. One simply has to look at the sad state of teacher education to see the ills of higher education. Presently, only 5 out of 100 students enrolled in a teacher education program in the Philippines become qualified to teach. The faculty in teaching institutions in the Philippines lacks advanced degrees. Less than half of higher education faculty have degrees beyond the bachelors' degree. Only about 10 percent holds a doctorate degree. Thus, higher education in the Philippines is really facing a serious problem. Remedial courses are likewise widespread. The additional two years of senior high school can therefore be viewed as simply transferring problems in higher education into basic education. DepEd's K+12 is thus a simple restatement of the problem and not a solution. Unfortunately, K+12 not only restates but also tries to hide what the real problems are.

One problem is unemployment. If one considers only those who are aged 15-24 years, this already covers half of the unemployed in the country. Keeping children in basic education two years longer may temporarily alleviate the unemployment situation. Unemployment is often viewed as lack of skills on the part of the employee. This is untrue since most frequently, it is a lack of opportunity that causes unemployment. The IBON foundation makes the following remark on DepEd's K+12:
According to IBON, reforms on the educational system, such as the recently-signed K to 12 Law, only focus on building skills needed by the global market. With K to 12, students are expected to work after taking up vocational and technical trainings in high school. The curriculum changes remain unsupportive of a progressive economy where students’ skills are developed to contribute to its development. 
Changes in curriculum should reflect the country’s development aspirations, the research group said. However, there is apparently no learning area or competency in the present K to 12 curriculum that aims to develop the ingenuity and capacity of Filipino students to develop new technologies and build new forms of knowledge needed to help strengthen the country’s industries. These would have helped create meaningful jobs and provide a sustainable solution to the country’s chronic jobs crisis.
The other problems K+12 fails to address are the challenges basic education itself faces. Its math and science curricula, areas that drive innovation and ingenuity, are very poor in quality. DepEd uses the lofty phrase "learner-centered" as well as flashy posters.

Above copied from DepEd Facebook page
Unfortunately, the curriculum of the first ten years has been degraded and diluted. Senior high school is therefore a remedial education for the failed first ten years of basic education.

Problems in basic education must be addressed before these grow into bigger ones. Emphasis, attention and resources must be given to the primary years so that basic education has a greater chance to succeed. In the first article of this blog, I wrote:
Instead of trying to attack the problem at the end of high school, efforts must be focused on the early years of education. This is where the dropout rate begins to escalate and these are the years where students are failing to learn as diagnosed by the standard test scores. Resources are very much needed in the first ten years of education and kindergarten. DepEd can do a better job on these years if DepEd does not have to worry about the added senior years in high school. The government should allow its citizens to work out on their own a solution for the desired two years that aim to prepare students either for college or the workforce. College preparatory schools or community colleges can do this job and TESDA could address those who are leaning towards vocational training.
Not being a solution to the real problems in basic education makes DepEd K+12 a problem in itself. It takes attention away from the early years and actually becomes a problem on its own. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Things Have Changed in Third Grade Reading

I grew up in Manila. As my father and I walked to school, we would pass by sidewalk vendors as well as beggars. Some of the beggars I saw were blind. This past weekend, my son and I was reading a book, Knots on a Counting Rope. And I just realized that my son who is currently in third grade has yet to see a blind person. I then asked my son to try and walk across the room with his eyes closed to help him imagine what blindness entails.

Above copied from Amazon
Knots on a Counting Rope is a beautiful story. It is touching and sad, yet hopeful. Here is the book read online by Bonnie Bartlett & William Daniels:

The counting rope is a metaphor for the passage of time and for a boy's emerging confidence facing his greatest challenges: blindness and the approaching death of his beloved grandfather.

Ideas by Jivey at the Teachers Pay Teachers site has the following suggested activity to accompany the reading of this book.

Above copied from Teachers Pay Teachers
When my son first read the text "The boy was born with a dark curtain in front of his eyes", I knew that it would be challenging for him to comprehend that passage. Later in the text, however, was a conversation demonstrating how difficult it was for the grandfather to explain to his grandson the color blue. So my son got a clue that the boy in the story could not see. Still, looking at the suggested answers to the above activity shows how a child may be able to comprehend this book.

This is third grade reading. I might have seen real blind people when I was in third grade, but I do not remember reading books at this level. Stevens and coworkers have recently published a paper in the American Educational Research Journal that examined how the reading curriculum has changed over the past hundred years. To avoid just citing anecdotes from my life and my son's current reading curriculum, it helps to look at data to see if things have really changed in reading curricula in the elementary years. Since I was in the elementary years during the 70's, I am particularly interested in comparing my elementary years with those of recent years.

The complexity of a reading curriculum lies on the text students read as well as the comprehension questions asked. One measure of the level of text is the number of sophisticated words, specifically, the ratio of words not among the 2000 words frequently used to the total number of words in the text. Here is how the most recent curriculum included in the study (1995-2004) compares with my generation on this metric.

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

Another measure of text sophistication is the Type Token Ratio, the ratio of unique words to the total number of words. Here, likewise, third-grade students are dealing with more complex reading material:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

The reading difficulty of the text also depends on how sentences are constructed. There is a developmental level scale that can be used to gauge how complex text is at the sentence level:

Covington, M. A., He, C., Brown, C., Nacxi, L., & Brown, J. (2006). How complex is that sentence? A proposed revision of the Rosenberg and Abbeduto D-Level scale (CASPR Research Report 2006-01). Athens, GA: Artificial Intelligence Center, University of Georgia.
Using the above scale, this is how my generation differs from my son's:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531
Not only does my son have to deal with text that is richer in vocabulary, but the sentences are likewise more complex. The differences, however, do not stop at the type of text. What is expected from a child in the 70's likewise differs from what is expected from my son now. In the 70's, there was emphasis on fact recall:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

Now, the emphasis has shifted towards inference:

Stevens and his co-authors therefore conclude:
This trend away from literal comprehension questions provides evidence that the tasks students are asked to complete have become more cognitively demanding by requiring the students to process more information from the text to answer the questions or complete the tasks asked of them. Questions that ask students to interpret information may also increase the cognitive demand for readers to use their prior knowledge and integrate it with text information. Again, it also gives evidence to a change from conceptualizing comprehension as extracting information from text to more cognitively demanding acts of interpreting and summarizing textual information.
Whether this trend is good or bad remains to be addressed. What is clear is that the cognitive demands are now higher. Whether it helps children develop proficiency in reading comprehension is yet to be seen. The scores of nine-year old children on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) may provide some clues:

Above copied from
The Nation's Report Card 2012
Larger gains over the past four decades are seen with children scoring below or at 220. This score incidentally is the cutoff between questions that demand explicit details from those that require inference. We may now infer....

Monday, March 23, 2015

Parents and Homework

A child's success in education is every parent's dream. Parents are often willing to do as much as they can to help prepare their children for the future. In India, where stakes in standardized tests are so high, some parents apparently go as far as handing out answer sheets to their children during the exam.

Above copied from Quartz India
These are definitely extreme cases of parental involvement in a child's education but there is one aspect of basic education in which parental involvement is expected and normal: Homework.

But even with homework, it is only logical to assume that there is a range in the quality of parental involvement. Dumont and coworkers in a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology have used the following criteria to assess parental involvement in their child's homework.

Above copied from
Quality of parental homework involvement: Predictors and reciprocal relations with academic functioning in the reading domain.
Dumont, Hanna; Trautwein, Ulrich; Nagy, Gabriel; Nagengast, Benjamin
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 106(1), Feb 2014, 144-161
How a parent helps a child do his or her homework is categorized according to three types based on self-determination theory. From the above list, control corresponds to actions that are often viewed as intrusive, dominating and demanding. The opposite, which can be regarded as positive, responsiveness, is characterized by a simple readiness to guide or assist a child only as needed. Lastly, structure is deemed as providing the correct environment or setting that may support a child's homework. Using this qualitative assessment of parental involvement in homework, the study, which includes 2,830 fifth graders from 225 classes in 86 secondary schools in two German states (Saxony and Baden-Württemberg) finds no statistically significant associations between any of the three dimensions and parents’ occupational status or parents’ educational background. There are controlling parents among the rich. There are responsive parents among the poor.

What apparently predicts the type of parental involvement is what parents perceive as their child's academic record and behavior. For instance, a child who is deemed not to be reading proficiently eventually sees greater control from the parents.  A child who is regarded by a parent to be not exerting full effort on studies receives more control and less responsiveness. These relationships are summarized in the following figure:

Above copied from
Quality of parental homework involvement: Predictors and reciprocal relations with academic functioning in the reading domain.
Dumont, Hanna; Trautwein, Ulrich; Nagy, Gabriel; Nagengast, Benjamin
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 106(1), Feb 2014, 144-161
A negative number on an arrow describes a negative association (or inverse relationship). For example, responsiveness in 5th grade is negatively associated (-0.12) with homework procrastination in 7th grade. Students whose parents were highly responsive in Grade 5 showed less homework procrastination 2 years later. In contrast, students whose parents were controlling in 5th grade procrastinate more in 7th grade. This therefore signals the beginning of a vicious cycle where procrastination leads to lower achievement triggering even greater control which causes more procrastination.

Structure shows a significant relationship with increased reading effort. No arrow connects this academic functioning to either control or responsiveness. What this means is that all of the effects on reading effort from either control or responsiveness are mediated through procrastination. Similarly, the absence of a significant relationship between parental involvement in homework in 5th grade and a child's reading achievement two years later does not mean that homework does not make a difference. It only demonstrates that a child's reading achievement is facilitated by parental involvement in homework through an improvement in the child's academic functioning (more effort and less procrastination). Thus, a controlling parent leads to a poorer reading achievement because it only increases procrastination which has a direct harmful effect on reading proficiency.

Clearly, not all parental involvement is good even in the seemingly innocuous and "low stakes" homework activity.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Insights from Gender Differences

If there is one significant conclusion that can be drawn from research on gender differences in education, it is likely the following. The similarities between boys and girls far outweigh the dissimilarities. The main reason behind this is that variance in children really goes far beyond gender. Every child is unique. I have a son who is in third grade and a daughter who is in kindergarten. They do share a lot of things in common. Still, each one is special.

Studies on gender disparities in education also provide plenty of data on how nature and nurture affect learning. At the early ages, there are cognitive and verbal differences between boys and girls. And when boys and girls grow up, there are likewise differences in experiences. Looking at these differences allows us to see the possible variations among children in general, regardless of gender. One simply has to take note that differences are usually found as mere fractions of a standard deviation. This means that there is indeed a great deal of overlap between the two genders. From a different perspective, this implies that variations within a gender are actually larger than the differences between boys and girls.

Examining how various characteristics (cognitive, verbal, values) might explain gender differences in learning likewise provides excellent avenues to understand how each of these factors affect education. Zeroing on the observed disparities between the two genders on performance in math and reading reveals elements worth noting for more effective teaching or learning.

Girls tend to outperform boys on reading. This difference is partly attributed to a difference in verbal and cognitive factors between the two genders. In addition, a lower level of engagement and interest among boys can account for the remaining disparity. On the other hand, there are more males in fields of math, science and engineering, yet boys do not really outperform girls in math especially in the elementary years. Such divergence can be partly attributed to the environment as well as the values formed by a girl as she grows up. These differences do not exist only between girls and boys. These differences exist among boys. These differences exist among girls as well. These differences exist among children.

Therefore, by simply addressing gender differences in education, one likewise addresses the uniqueness in each child. It is impossible to design instruction specific to each child if schooling happens inside a classroom. However, with an awareness of striking and consequential differences, lessons and activities that are responsive to the individual needs and capabilities can still be tailored. Take, for instance, the engagement or interest aspect in learning. Values in learning are often caught, not taught. There is a difference between teaching kids to read and teaching kids to love reading. There is likewise a difference between teaching kids math and teaching kids to love math.

Only through an awareness of this rich diversity, can one truly appreciate the enormous challenge that teachers and parents face. Effective teaching requires a teacher to treat each student as a unique child. This requires a lot from experience. Relying on oneself is probably not a good idea. Parents talk with other parents when it comes to raising a child. Teachers should do as well. And, of course, parents and teachers need to work together.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Boys Are Better in Math

In a previous post, possible reasons behind girls outperforming boys in both reading and writing have been examined. It turns out that both language and cognitive variables are predicting the gender gap in this area of learnng. However, these factors alone are not sufficient. Thus, there remains the question of whether attitude or beliefs need to be considered. Interestingly, there is a recent study that looks at the other side, boys outperforming girls in math, and asks the question of whether values matter.

How a student values a discipline encompasses four different dimensions. These four dimensions are intrinsic, attainment, utility and cost. The intrinsic component relates to how much a student gets carried away or immersed in the subject (Math is fun). Attainment is defined by how much importance a student gives to performing well in the subject (It is important to me to do well in math). Utility measures how a student views learning in the subject helps in his or her future (Math will help me in my life). Cost measures the amount of effort and time as well as missed opportunities to do something else (I have to give up a lot to do well in math).

Gaspard and coworkers from the University of Tübingen look at the above dimensions of values to see if there are gender differences. The results are as follows:

Above graph drawn from data provide by
More Value Through Greater Differentiation: Gender Differences in Value Beliefs About Math.
Gaspard, Hanna; Dicke, Anna-Lena; Flunger, Barbara; Schreier, Brigitte; Häfner, Isabelle; Trautwein, Ulrich; Nagengast, Benjamin
Journal of Educational Psychology, Oct 27 , 2014

The above values are similar to size effects. It is the difference between the average scores of the two genders (boys minus girls) expressed as a fraction of the standard deviation. In contrast to the previous article on reading, the above differences are huge compared to how the two genders perform differently in math exams. A meta-analysis of studies on gender differences in math tests yields a weighted average effect size of 0.05 (The numbers above, on the other hand, are about six times this value).  One therefore can apparently do well in math without the excitement. Second, boys are not really better in math than girls are. However, simply because the observed differences in values do not translate into the same amount of difference in performance, it does not mean that the values are of no significance. After all, values are often associated with choices. Thus, the gender differences in values and not in performance may in fact be the major reason why fewer females are choosing future careers in the math and the sciences.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Girls Write Better Than Boys Do

Girls outperform boys in various standardized reading comprehension exams. Girls likewise score higher in writing tests. This should not be surprising since one's writing ability depends to a certain extent on one's reading ability. Writing can be distilled into two parts: generation of ideas and their subsequent transcription. In other words, there is quality, which can be measured by organization and theme, and productivity, which can be roughly gauged, for instance, by the number of words written.

A recent study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology examines in detail how girls differ from boys in terms of writing skills. Included in this study are about 500 students (grades 2 and 3) from 76 classrooms in 10 schools in a midsized city in the United States. Three writing tests are administered to gauge both writing quality and productivity and the differences found between the two genders is shown in the following figure:

Above graph drawn from data provided by
Toward an understanding of dimensions, predictors, and the gender gap in written composition. Kim, Young-Suk; Al Otaiba, Stephanie; Wanzek, Jeanne; Gatlin, Brandy. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 107(1), Feb 2015, 79-95.
What is graphed here is the difference between the mean scores of boys and girls as a fraction of the standard deviation. In writing quality, for instance, boys scored, on average, 0.39 standard deviation lower than girls. The above are therefore quite significant differences. In an attempt to explain these, various assessments have been likewise employed to measure language and cognitive variables. The study considers oral language, reading, spelling, handwriting fluency (letter writing and story copying tasks), attention, and rapid automatized naming. With these variables or predictors, gender differences have also been observed.

Above graph drawn from data provided by
Toward an understanding of dimensions, predictors, and the gender gap in written composition. Kim, Young-Suk; Al Otaiba, Stephanie; Wanzek, Jeanne; Gatlin, Brandy. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 107(1), Feb 2015, 79-95.
The values shown in the above graph are likewise the differences between the mean scores of boys and girls as a fraction of their respective standard deviations. Of course, these variables cannot be expected to be independent from each other. Still, it is noticeable, that the differences between boys and girls observed in any of these variables are not as big as those observed in the writing exams. This is truly multivariate but even with multilevel modeling, it becomes clear that the language and cognitive variables alone do not explain the gender gap in writing. One can imagine other factors that may be in play, as the authors of this study have done. There is motivation and engagement. Likewise, other executive functions in addition to attention have not been included.

What this study shows is that writing is a very complicated task that involves so many factors. To help a child who is currently struggling in writing, the key challenges among the various indicators need to be identified since each one may require a specific intervention. In addition, since not all the gender differences can be explained by language and cognitive variables, attitude probably counts. Teachers may therefore need to find ways to make writing an activity of interest to boys.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Am Good at Math, But Not in Writing

Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, "Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Are gaps in education likewise guaranteed? Achievement gaps do seem permanent. And sometimes, gaps even become bigger with time. Inequalities become magnified with one side progressing and the other falling behind.

In US education, there are gender gaps suggested in both math and reading scores for grade 12:

Math Scores
2013 NAEP Test for 12th Graders

Reading Scores
2013 NAEP Test for 12th Graders

These gaps are not exclusive at the end of K-12, but are actually present as early as fourth grade:

Above copied from Education Next
To address these gaps, stereotyping is frequently judged as the culprit. The gender gaps seen above can indeed come from a social frame of reference. Presently, there are more women teaching in K-12 classrooms but at the university level, there are more male professors. A more recent concern has likewise been raised regarding the trend that colleges are now enrolling more females than males, and that there are more males failing or dropping from basic education. In either case, there is a gender gap and the question of whether schools are making this gap bigger needs to be addressed.

Ulrich Schroeders from the University of Bamberg has kindly provided me with a copy of a paper he co-authored in the Journal of Educational Psychology.  The study includes data from more than forty thousand ninth grade students in Germany. The paper looks at the relationship between how a student views a particular subject in relation to other disciplines. We have heard these phrases before from so many people, both children and adults: "I am good at writing, but not in math" or the reverse, "I excel in arithmetic but I struggle with book reports". A table in this paper is worth noting as it shows the relationship between how students perceive one's ability in various subjects:

Above copied from
Contrast and Assimilation Effects of Dimensional Comparisons in Five Subjects: An Extension of the I/E Model.
Jansen, Malte; Schroeders, Ulrich; Lüdtke, Oliver; Marsh, Herbert W.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Feb 9 , 2015, No Pagination Specified. dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000021
Mat =Mathematics, Ger = German, Bio = Biology, Che = Chemistry, Phy = Physics
The above are correlations between how a student perceives his ability on one subject against another. The negative number between German and Mathematics illustrates the 'contrast effect' between the two subjects. If one is good in math, one is not as good in German, and conversely. And it is apparent that, except for Biology, the sciences, Chemistry and Physics, are closely linked to mathematics. Thus, students think that if one is very capable in math, chances are high that one would likewise excel in the sciences. Of course, this myth is shattered if one looks at the rest of the table where the students' test scores between these subjects are examined:

Above copied from 
Contrast and Assimilation Effects of Dimensional Comparisons in Five Subjects: An Extension of the I/E Model.
Jansen, Malte; Schroeders, Ulrich; Lüdtke, Oliver; Marsh, Herbert W.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Feb 9 , 2015, No Pagination Specified. dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000021
Mat =Mathematics, Ger = German, Bio = Biology, Che = Chemistry, Phy = Physics
Test scores are all correlated with each other. Students who are proficient in German are likewise proficient in math and in the sciences. The idea that verbal and mathematical domains are separate and that these two are negatively correlated is incorrect. Yet, a lot of students believe that this is true. A lot of adults believe in this as well. Thus, in addition to avoiding gender stereotypes in education, this imagined demarcation line between math and verbal abilities must be eradicated. Recognizing that math and reading are not really negatively related domains should help in addressing gender gaps. If one can be capable in both, there is therefore no reason to become proficient in one but not in the other....

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gender Gap in Education

Early this month, the OECD published a report on gender gaps or inequalities in basic education. The report, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, explores a variety of data from PISA test scores as well as survey questions to shed light on the differences between boys and girls. The following short video recaps the findings and recommendations from the report:

At first glance, the report sounds a bit of a stretch. How can one possibly decipher gender disparities in basic education from multiple choice questions or simple surveys? Another major concern with regard to PISA test scores is the low stakes nature of the exam. Debeer and coworkers, for example, have questioned whether PISA is really testing persistence and not ability. In the paper, "Student, School, and Country Differences in Sustained Test-Taking Effort in the 2009 PISA Reading Assessment", it is found first of all that there is a decrease in examinee effort while taking the PISA exam. This decrease in effort manifests in a greater probability of incorrect responses as one moves a question to a later part of the test.

PISA 2012 adds the following question at the end of the exam:

Above copied from The ABC of Gender Equality in Education
The results from this survey question are as follows:
On a scale ranging from 1 to 10, where 1 represents minimum effort and 10 maximum effort, girls reported an effort of 7.67 in the low-stakes PISA test while boys reported an effort of 7.32, on average across OECD countries. Girls reported an effort of 9.36 in the hypothetical high-stakes PISA test while boys reported an effort of 9.13, on average. 
Self-report measures on effort unfortunately are oftentimes inaccurate. First and foremost, what does the scale of 1 to 10 really mean? What does 7.67 on this scale mean? What does the difference between 9.36 and 7.67 on this scale mean? I have no idea.

In Debeer's work, on the other hand, measuring the probability of a correct response on a given question as a function of where that question is placed on an exam is much more reliable. Among students from Greece, for example, simply placing a question near the end of the exam results in a decrease of about 20 percent in correct responses. This clearly shows a decrease in effort during the exam itself. If gender differences are being extracted from the test scores, it is therefore important to see if this measurable decrease in effort correlates with gender as well.

Nonetheless, there are quite interesting trends obtained from the study. One is the use of video games. According to the survey, boys tend to play video games more than girls do. Interestingly, playing video games correlates with better performance if the games are not collaborative online:

Above copied from The ABC of Gender Equality in Education
Of course, the above are mere correlations. Another finding relates to the number of hours spent on homework. Right at the beginning, this is already problematic since it merely asks for hours spent on homework. A child can easily spend three hours on a homework that only requires thirty minutes. The mere number of hours spent on homework can not possibly determine how much a child is learning. A mere correlation between hours spent on homework and test scores is not a clear indication of causation. It is already known that the number of hours spent on homework do not correlate with a school system's performance on the PISA exam. Within a school system (or country), a correlation may exist but one must take caution in these trends. One simply has to notice that the amount of time spent on homework correlates with socio-economic status. Thus, socio-economic factors are therefore in play.

There is certainly useful information one can can derive from standardized exams or surveys. Unfortunately, there are limits on how these pieces of data can be analyzed. One must keep this in mind especially when addressing a very complicated and difficult issue like gender differences in education.